THE GENESIS OF THE APPAREL COMPANY OOBE, strange as it may seem, was an infomercial for the Psychic Friends Network, hosted by Dionne Warwick.
Students at Clemson, Tom Merritt and Mike Pereyo were hanging out at the lake with their soon-to-be spouses Allyison Clark ’92 and Melissa Magee ’92. Merritt was cooking steaks, and they were halfway listening to a Psychic Friends infomercial when someone started talking about having an out-of- body experience, an “oobe.”
That caught their attention. “We had come to faith a couple of years earlier,” says Merritt. “Spiritual things were a big deal to us.”
It started a conversation about a different kind of “oobe”: an out-of- Bible experience. “That’s been our ultimate experience since we came to Clemson,” says Pereyo.They coined the word and began using it, and their friends picked it up as well. An “oobe” day for Merritt and Pereyo was the kind of day you’d have if you were going to skip class (not that they would recommend that) and go to Whitewater Falls. Or if you played ball at Fike and were hitting every shot. The kind of day that makes you feel like you’re doing what you were born to do.
“It was our ultimate-day experience,” says Pereyo, “and Tom just wore that word out.”
HEADS OR TAILS?
Fast forward several years. Both were married and working, Merritt as a high school counselor and coach in Easley with two small children, Pereyo in a corporate job in Charlotte with a baby on the way.
“We recognized that we were entrepreneurs at heart, having grown up watching our dads either go from the bottom to the top like [Pereyo’s] dad in a real boot-strap-type story, and my dad had a dairy farm before getting into the landscaping business and figuring it out,” Merritt said. “So we both had this itch that we had to create and do something.
Merritt can’t help but laugh when he recalls the one particular phone call on April 29, 1994, that served as their future-company’s first springboard.
Pereyo had called to say, “We’re incorporated. You owe me half of $300.” “Awesome. What’s our corporate name?”
“I just put OOBE.”
“Are you in or are you out?” “I’m in.”
“What do we do?”
“I have no idea. That’s why I called you.”
That phone call led to months of meetings at a Waffle House halfway between Charlotte and Easley, where they begin to imagine what OOBE would look like, crafting a business plan for what they saw as their niche: a segment of the outdoor industry that had to do with apparel. After a year, they handed in their resignations on the same day and moved into their first office: a rundown auto body shop in Easley that rented for $50 a month.
They bought two desks and a FAX machine, had two OOBE bags made along with their first T-shirt samples and caps. “For the first several months,” says Pereyo, “while samples were being made, we called every outdoor store within driving distance several times a week, asking them if they carried OOBE.”
When the samples were done, they packed the car and started driving. When they’d introduce themselves as being from OOBE, the response was, “Oh, folks have been calling for that. Come on in.”
Merritt ticks off the names of those outdoor specialty shops that were early adopters: Sunrift Adventures, Halfmoon Outfitters, Highcountry, Outdoor Experience. “They took a chance on us,” he says. “They are such a part of our story.”
As the business began to grow, they realized they needed to divide responsibilities. They swear it’s a true story: “We flipped a coin,” says Pereyo. “Heads, you’re in charge of sales, marketing, business development. Tails is design, sourcing, all of that. The way it landed, it’s still that today. It’s really worked.”
“Mike,” says Merritt, “went into management.”
COMING BACK TO TIGERTOWN
That approach is no more conventional than the way they raised enough capital to move forward. When they were selling out of their cars to outdoor stores, Merritt began stopping by dive shops and selling scuba diving-themed shirts. It seemed to be a successful ploy, so they created “Dive Jive, the company that wants to go under,” with a series of shirts and hats sporting phrases like “Zero Visibility,” Deep= High and “Deep Thinker.” They went to the Jockey Lot in Anderson, bought tanks, a velvet Elvis, plywood and lava lamps, then drove to New Orleans and set up a booth at an international dive show.
The result? “We wrote 6 figures worth of orders,” says Pereyo, “and that gave us the capital to get OOBE off the ground.”
Sitting in the auto body shop, handwriting invoices on carbon paper, Merritt and Pereyo realized they needed help to move their company to the next level. They drove to Clemson’s Small Business Development Center with their yellow legal pad to meet with Becky Hobart (now Van Evera). When she asked to see their financials and their balance sheet, they handed her the yellow legal pad.“They were a super dynamic couple of guys,” she says. “My job entailed taking them and tying them to the ground so they could get from where they were to where they wanted to be.”
At that point, says Pereyo, the BSDC “wrapped their arms around us and helped us put together a strong financial model.”
“You can’t get very far in our story,” says Merritt, “without coming back to Tigertown.” Pereyo concurs. “Clemson engaged in the OOBE story and has pretty deep roots in there for the past 20 years.”
Not long after, Van Evera and Clemson successfully nominated the pair as Young Entrepreneurs of the Year. But they’ve never been able to take themselves seriously for too long. They got up to receive the award, and the first thing out of Merritt’s mouth was, “Who came in second? Or were we the only ones?”
The award paved the way for their first loan from the Small Business Administration, which enabled them to get over a bump in the road and on their way.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
The corporate offices of OOBE that overlook the Reedy River in Greenville are a far cry from the Easley body shop. But beginnings are important, and Pereyo and Merritt make a point of remembering theirs. The window from that first office is framed and on the wall of the 105-B conference room, a gift last year from their current OOBE family. The name of the room refers to 105-B Hollow Oaks Lane, the address of the body shop.
They have no sales force, no business development staff. That money and energy, according to Pereyo, goes into the service strategy instead: treating people well and exceeding their expectations. They want to have partners, not customers, who will become storytellers and ambassadors on their behalf. “Our customers are our sales staff if we treat them well,” he says.
It’s a philosophy that sounds like it reflects a small business with four or five employees, not one that outfits the employees of companies like Chick-fil-A, Krispy Kreme and Race Trac and has three offshore offices.
But it’s a philosophy that fits Pereyo and Merritt, who have run a business together for 20 years with the kind of love, respect and trust that most people reserve for their spouses. “If you really want to make a relationship work,” says Merritt, “it’s got to be about the other person at some point. If it’s always about you, that gets old in a hurry, in a marriage or a business partnership. It’s never been about what can I maximize personally, but what we want to do next, and what does God want us to do.”
They’ve known each other long enough and worked together enough that they finish each other’s sentences. Which is somewhat the secret of their success. They have a firm understanding that no decision goes forward that they don’t both feel good about.
“We’ve always been on the same trajectory,” says Pereyo. “We want to honor God; God doesn’t honor greed or selfish ambition. For us, it’s more about people than a product.”
They dote on OOBE like an only child. “It feels like parenting in some ways,” says Merritt. It’s something we desperately want to grow up and do well without it becoming an idol.”
And now, with OOBE’s growth, there’s a village raising that child. “There are people here taking care of OOBE in ways we are not capable of doing. As a parent who birthed the company, that’s one of the coolest things in the world — to see other people love the company and want to do right by it. There might be something here other than just schlepping clothes.”
AN OOBE APPROACH TO BUSINESS
Ten years ago, Merritt and Pereyo took OOBE in a new direction, positioning themselves “as a strategic branded apparel company specifically looking to provide the world’s best brands with large-scale uniform services.”
That leap, like most things in their company, comes with a story filled with self-deprecating humor. They had worked with Chick-fil-A in smaller ways, providing clothing for special events, when they found out the company had issued an RFP for uniforms.
Pereyo called the corporate office and spoke with the vice president handling the RFP. The questions came like quickly:
Have you every shipped to 100,000 employees before?
Do you have a customer service department?
Do you have a warehouse?
Can you pass financial due diligence?
Is this contract bigger than your whole company?
The answer to all of those, except the last one, was no. The question that followed was this: “Then why should we include you in the RFP?”
Pereyo’s response? “Because we’re NOT a uniform company. We’re a strategic branded company.”
“We changed the battlefield,” says Merritt. “We clearly focused on their team members, providing them a better product, leveraging performance fabrics, helping the team members feel better about themselves so they could provide better service.” That answer resonated with Chick-fil-A.
Chick-fil-A was followed by a number of other companies and organizations: a wall at the Greenville office sports logos of their clients including YMCA, BMW, Race Trac, Herschend Family Entertainment, among others. They’re deliberate about which companies they pitch: “We want to align ourselves with companies that value the same things we value,” says Merritt.
In the midst of this shift, something seemed to click for OOBE. Pereyo sees it as an OOBE moment of a sort, where the owners and the company shifted from a focus on themselves and building their brand to focusing on others. “When we put others first, and put ourselves behind them, we were able to move forward and help propel these great companies. That’s when we found success. That’s servant leadership. That’s where God allowed us to succeed — not when it was all about us.”
There are other organizations that might not be on the wall, but who have been beneficiaries of OOBE’s commitment to give back. They outfitted all the teachers in Greenville, Pickens and Anderson counties with branded shirts. And they recently provided the Clemson student tour guides with branded apparel that the guides say makes them feel more professional. “At this stage of life,” says Merritt, “we have to be focused about what we give our time and energy. Family and church are really important to us. But Clemson has won a place in our hearts as well.”
FAITH, FAMILY AND FRIENDSHIP
OOBE hit its 20th year recently, and it was an emotional milestone. Neither Pereyo nor Merritt can (or wants to) imagine what it would be like to have gone it alone these past 20 years.
In the company celebration, Merritt told the staff that it was their relationship and the support of their wives that kept them pushing the ball up the hill all these years.
Pereyo calls Merritt a truth teller, one of the few people who will unabashedly speak the truth to him. “He gets to speak whether I like to hear it or not. It creates friction, but I come around to ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ Few people, except Melissa, know me better.”
Merritt characterizes Pereyo as an encourager in his life. “For me, it’s been a massive blessing to have a partner. If he was down, I was up. If I was down, he was up.”As they talk and tell stories, it’s clear that faith, family and friendship (plus humor) are all intertwined in their lives and in the story of OOBE, and there’s really no way to separate them.
More and more often, they’re asked to share the story of their company and their personal partnership. Recently, they were invited to speak to the Clemson Alumni group in Atlanta. On the ride down, they were talking about the upcoming presentation.
Pereyo looked over at Merritt and said, “Tom, do you know the common denominator of every mistake we’ve made with OOBE? It’s us!”